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Getting a SENTRI Pass

After we learned that our daughter and son-in-law would be moving to San Diego, a friend of John’s told him that there is a pass for people who travel back and forth across the border frequently. Since we have friends in Ensenada and like the city, we thought it would be worth exploring. Here is what we found out.

The name of the program is SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection)

Go to www.cbp.gov. There’s a menu on the right side, and toward the bottom you’ll see SENTRI. Click on it, and on the page that comes up click on Apply on-line. Follow the directions and your application will be submitted. This part of the process costs $25, which you can conveniently pay with your credit card.

In a few days you will get a conditional approval and a notice that you need to go for a personal interview and fingerprinting at any one of a number of border stations. The nearest to us was at Nogales, about 1½ hours from Tucson. We had to make appointments, which we were able to do on the Internet site. The site also provides a list of the documents needed. You should make copies of all of them. It says “Bring original passport,” so I didn’t make copies of ours, but I found out I should have. However they made copies for me. I also had made copies of both our driver’s licenses on the same sheet of paper, so when we were called to separate windows, I tore it in half and gave him the copy of his license. This was also a no-no, I found out.

But to go back for a minute to the process. If you go to Nogales, the office is in the big building right at the border, but there is no parking, so you need to park on the street or in one of the many parking lots located near the entrance to the Customs and Border Patrol complex. The SENTRI office is on the second floor.

When we got inside, we had to sign in and wait to be called up to one of the windows. We were a bit early, but we were actually called up before the times of our appointments. The agent who interviewed me was very pleasant and efficient and answered all my questions. These are some of the answers.

• SENTRI is a 5-year program. At the end of that time, you must re-register.
• The cost is $97 in addition to the $25 already spent to apply.
• Each individual must register separately. You can’t register as a married couple.
• The pass is good at all border crossings that have a SENTRI lane.
• Each person can register one vehicle as part of the cost. It must be inspected at the site. To go through the SENTRI lane, every passenger in the car must have a pass, and the car must be approved. It can be driven by anyone with a pass.
• Any change in personal information must be reported to the SENTRI office. This includes renewal of the car insurance.

The officer made a point of reminding me that I was now a Trusted Traveler and would be held to a high standard. He cautioned me to be especially careful about what I tried to import from Mexico and gave me a list of specific items that are permitted and not permitted.

After our interviews, we were fingerprinted. No more messy black ink. They had a nice little electronic machine on which I had to press first all four fingers of my left hand, then all four fingers of my right hand, then both thumbs. Unfortunately, the machine was very sensitive, and it didn’t pick up my prints the first time. So the officer tried again. Again it didn’t work. He assured me I wasn’t doing anything wrong—it was just the machine. The problem was that if any of the prints failed, we had to repeat the whole process. Finally on the fourth try, it worked. John, on the other hand, got his done right the first time.

Then we had to pay our fees. They told us we had to pay separately. We couldn’t write a single check or record a single credit card transaction. Well, that was no big deal.

Then we went down to get our car inspected. We had to retrieve it from the parking lot and drive it down to the inspection bay, just this side of the border crossing. The inspector gave it a very thorough examination, looking under the car, inside the trunk, under the hood, and in any cavity that could conceivably conceal anything. Then he handed John a card that was his pass and affixed an electronic antenna to the windshield. It looks just like a label—about 1 ½ x 2 inches. But that’s what will get us through the fast lane.

We wanted to register our second car, but had been told we’d have to bring it in to be inspected. Or we could add it later, but that would cost an additional $42. So, being the cheapskate I am, I decided to drive the second car back. The officer entered all the vehicle information so that we could just bring it in the next day. I asked if we needed an appointment. He said no, but to be sure to call them first so they could have the papers ready. What he didn’t tell me was that no one would answer the phone.

So the next morning, just before we were ready to leave, I called and got an answering machine. I left a message, and we started out. On the way, I left another message with my name, my application number, and my cell phone number. I tried to call again several times, but never got a real person.

When we got there, we drove right over to the inspection bay and said we were there for a SENTRI inspection. Three other cars came in after us and were inspected. When I asked why we hadn’t been, the inspector said she didn’t have our papers. Apparently no one had listened to their phone messages. So I left John there and went up to the office where an officer found my folder right away and told me to go back and that someone would be right there to inspect the car.

Sure enough the same inspector came over soon after I got back, inspected the car, affixed the antenna, and gave me my SENTRI pass. Even with the delay, we were out of there in half an hour.

Now, we have to see how well it works when we actually cross the border. But anything is bound to be better than waiting in line for hours, smelling exhaust, wasting gas, and growing more and more impatient and frustrated.


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